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Saturday, May 15, 1999 Published at 05:41 GMT 06:41 UK

World: Americas

US gun law in firing line

Opinion polls suggest new gun controls are wanted

New legislation aimed at tightening gun control laws in the United States have been criticised by President Bill Clinton.

Mr Clinton, who has long campaigned for tougher gun regulations, said the new law was worse than existing legislation.

He said it would create new loopholes for criminals wanting to buy guns.

In a tense debate, the Republican-controlled Senate narrowly approved a measure requiring compulsory background checks on anyone buying a firearm at a gun show.

It represented a major U-turn by the Republicans, who on Wednesday rejected a similar amendment put forward by the Democrats.

Phillipa Thomas in Washington: "Debate over gun comntrol is shifting"
Political attention in Washington has focused on gun shows because weapons used in the massacre at Littleton High School, Denver, Colorado were purchased at a show - where restrictions in force for licensed dealers did not apply.

The new law was passed with a 48-47 vote but did not win Democrat support.

President Clinton and Democrat senators criticised both the Republican-sponsored bill and the Republican Party, which they say is in the pocket of the gun lobby.

Democrats say the bill, designed to close one loophole will open up others.

Washington Correspondent Rob Watson: "Democrats still on the attack"
They insist the new measure would allow anyone who pawned a gun to retrieve it without undergoing a background check.

Democrats also said it would weaken existing federal checks and give gun sellers exemption from some civil lawsuits.

Mr Clinton said: "The new Senate Republican bill is riddled with high-calibre loopholes.

[ image: Bill Clinton:
Bill Clinton: "High calibre loopholes"
"It won't stop criminals from buying guns at gun shows. At the same time, it will open up a new pawnshop loophole that lets convicted felons get guns at a local pawnshop. That's actually worse than current law."

The new law only succeeded because two conservative Republicans, who had previously opposed any mandatory background checks on gun show purchases, changed their minds.

BBC Washington Correspondent Rob Watson says the Republican policy reversal reflects a growing desire in the party to shed its pro-gun image as the latest opinion polls show 80% of Americans in favour of new gun limits.

Orrin Hatch, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill, acknowledged clarification might be needed to make it "absolutely, superabundantly clear" that the intent is to close the gun show loophole.

Earlier this week, the Senate approved new laws banning the import of high-capacity ammunition clips and the possession by juveniles of semi-automatic weapons.

Our correspondent said such moves would have been inconceivable before the Colorado shootings.

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